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Thoughts on Easter and Passover

Thoughts on Easter and Passover


This Sunday, many Christians will be celebrating Easter, though the Orthodox Church will not do so until May 5th.  Most years the observance of Easter falls during the week of Passover.  This year, due to the Jewish leap year, the addition of a Second Adar to our lunar calendar to put us back in synch with the solar calendar, there is a significant difference in the dates.  The western church’s calculation of Easter schedules it on the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox.  As we know the equinox is on March 21st.  The full moon was some time last week, thus this Sunday is Easter.  Most years, when we do not add a leap month, Passover begins on the full moon after the vernal equinox, the 15th of Nisan.   Thus, the two holidays often coincide.  Interestingly, the Orthodox Church follows the same rule established in 325 by the Council of Nicea who wanted to avoid dependence on the Jewish calendar by creating this method of determining the date.  However, the Orthodox Church, instead of using the current Gregorian Calendar, goes by the Julian Calendar instead where the vernal equinox is significantly out of step with the astronomical reality. For a couple of matters of Jewish law which we reckon on the solar calendar, the rabbis also still follow the Julian calendar of their time. But with Passover, which has a fixed date on the lunar calendar, we come out closer to the western church’s calculation of Easter.


In Hebrew, Passover is Pesach and the Hebrew term for Easter is Pascha, actually the Aramaic form of Pesach and in some Christian communities that is the name of the holiday, though some see Pascha as related to a Greek term meaning suffering.  Aside from the calendrical calculations, it should not surprise us that when the prelates at Nicea decided that the resurrection should have an actual holiday around it, the date chosen was Passover time.  If you look at the four different accounts of Jesus’s last days in the four canonical Gospels in Christian Scripture, while there are significant differences in the traditions, they all place the events on or around the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Passover time.  While the Temple stood, Jews came to the Holy City to offer the paschal lamb which was to be eaten on the eve of Passover along with matzah and bitter herbs, maror, as a reminder and celebration of the Exodus.  At that time, parents were to tell their children about the Exodus from Egypt.  It is not clear how much of the actual ritual we follow today existed in the first century while the Temple still stood, but we know that our seder and Haggadah were developed by the rabbis over a period of centuries. Scholars see the seder as modelled on the Greco-Roman tradition of the symposium, as Plato describes it in his dialogues, where over food and drink, serious topics were addressed by the ancients. The general structure of our seder appears in the Mishnah in the final chapter of the tractate of Pesachim from the beginning of the third century. It is hard to know how much of it already existed prior to that time.


In an interesting volume that came out in 1974,‘’Polychrome Historical Haggadah for Passover,’’ Rabbi Jacob Freedman has color-coded the various layers of prayers and readings that have gone into our modern Haggadah since its beginnings and one can get some sense of the historical development of the text.  We need to remind ourselves that Maxwell House was not yet distributing free Haggadahs in that age before the printing press.  Seders were much more free-form back then.  So, while some may imagine that Jesus’s last supper was a Passover seder, it seems likely that while he and his disciples were celebrating Passover in some manner, it was far from the seder that we might attend today.  For Christians, however, the symbolism of the Passover observance was adapted according to Christian theology.  Jesus becomes the Paschal lamb offered as a sacrifice for humankind.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, Easter is ‘the Christian Passover’’ and it speaks of the ‘’Paschal mystery of Christ’s cross.’’  Jesus presents himself as the offering and it is seen by Christians as an act of redemption of all believers from sin.  That is very different from the sacrifice of the original paschal lamb which is not for atonement of sin, but a reminder of God’s passing over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt and then redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to freedom.


Though both Passover and Easter have similar themes, as Dr. Ismar Schorsch writes, ‘’In both festivals nature and history converge with a resounding message of hope.  The renewal of nature that comes in spring amplifies the promise of redemption embedded in the historical events being commemorated.  To each faith community, God’s presence manifests itself in two keys, in nature and through history.’’  Schorsch notes that both traditions favor history as each celebrates its foundation story.


Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, an expert on Jewish liturgy, speaking to the Chicago Board of Rabbis this week, reminded us that the message of Passover is redemption, geulah, hope for the future.  Thus, the sages instruct us to tell our story beginning with degradation (genut), suffering, persecution, but ending with (shevach) praise of God and (geulah), redemption.  As we celebrate our founding narrative, the redemption from Egyptian slavery, the beginning of the Jewish people, we bracket the seder in every generation with words of hope for the future redemption of our people and of the world.  We start off with Ha Lachma Anya, “this is the bread of affliction,” where we proclaim, ‘’this year we are slaves, next year we will be free, this year we are here, next year in the land of Israel.’  At the end of the seder, again we proclaim, ‘’L’shanah habaah biy’rushalyim,’’ Next year in Jerusalem.  In the course of the seder, we note that “in every generation they have arisen to destroy us but the Holy One has saved us from their hand.”  “In every generation we should see ourselves as if we personally came forth from Egypt, from Mitzraim,” whatever narrow straits we find ourselves in throughout history.  Dr. Louis Finkelstein, the late chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, explained why we say in the Haggadah that Laban, the Arami, was worse than Pharaoh. “Arami”, he explained, was code for ‘’Romi’ the Romans, under whose oppressive rule the rabbis lived as they awaited the ultimate redemption.  Other nations and other groups have stepped up in other generations to fill the role of “Arami” and in spite of all, as we celebrate Passover, we continue to express our hope for the future.


Thus, at a time like this, again we remind ourselves of our undying hope for future redemption.  Twice each day, we are to remember the redemption from Egypt and offer our prayers for the ultimate redemption. When we raise our cup every Shabbat and festival, we proclaim that it is ‘’zecher l’yetziat Mitzraim’’ in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. Because we ‘’know the heart of the stranger,’’ because of our experience in Egypt, it becomes our mission to work for the dignity for all people, to end hatred, and to create a better world.  Hence, on the Shabbat prior to Passover, Shabbat HaGadol, we read Malachi’s prophecy of Elijah coming to announce the great and awesome Day of the Lord and as we conclude the Passover holiday, we turn to the prophet Isaiah who describes that idyllic time yet to come when all the world will live in peace and harmony. 


Our neighbors, in celebrating Easter, also see the resurrection of Jesus as the ultimate affirmation of life.  As the Byzantine liturgy puts it, ‘’Dying, he conquered death; to the dead, he has given life.’’ Easter is a symbol of hope as well for Christians.  At the last supper, Jesus takes the bread and the wine and creates an indelible ritual for Christians, when they eat the bread, the host, that represents his body and the wine is his blood.  The sacrament of communion, the eucharist, re-enacts this symbolism of the last supper for Christians and turns God’s saving grace into a lived reality. My teacher, Rabbi Seymour Siegel, used to complain that the Christians seem to have taken all the good terms that originate in Jewish tradition and made them sound Christian when we say them in English.  “Salvation” is the translation of Yeshuah and “Resurrection” is techiyat hameitim, expressions we recite regularly in the Amidah, but in English seem unfamiliar.


Some scholars have seen elements in the Haggadah as a response to Christian adoption of Jewish symbols.  Most notably, I recall hearing a pointed interpretation of Rabban Gamliel’s insistence on mentioning the meaning of three symbols at the seder: Pesach, Matzah, and Maror.  He asks about the Pesach offering brought by our ancestors, “Al shum mah?” What does it symbolize? It is a reminder that God passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt. (Not to be confused with Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.)  Rabban Gamliel then holds up a Matzah and asks again “Al shum mah?” He explains that it is because the dough of our ancestors did not have time to rise before God revealed Himself and redeemed them. (Not to be taken as Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, as he presented the bread at the Last Supper to his disciples.)  Finally, he shows the Maror, the bitter herbs and again asks “Al shum mah?” Why do we eat it? To remind us that the Egyptians embittered our lives with hard labor. (Again, not to be taken for the suffering endured by Jesus prior to the crucifixion.)


I wonder how Rabban Gamliel would do in interfaith dialogue.  Clearly different texts and symbols can take on varying meanings depending on the traditions and theology of the interpreter.  Over the years, engaging in interfaith dialogue and attending many such programs, I’ve seen a range of interpretations even within the same religious community. I will always recall a program we held in Charleston where three speakers discussed the symbolic meaning of bread.  A Catholic priest held up a host, a matzah cracker in essence, used for the eucharist, and told us that it was made in strict purity by nuns out in California and used during the Eucharist ritual.  At that time, the host becomes “literally the body of Christ,” accepted by the congregant.  After that, a congregational minister held up a beautiful loaf braided in a circular form and explained that in her church this loaf, baked by a congregant, was passed around as part of their communion service, and as people partook of it, they felt part of the community of the church and Christ’s presence among them.  Finally, a rabbi, one of my colleagues in the community, held up a loaf of Challah and said that this was simply bread, perhaps a reminder of the manna which miraculously fed the Israelites in the wilderness.  It represents food in general at the beginning of a meal.  In the absence of the Temple, each person become a priest at his or her own table and reciting the blessing for bread, acknowledges God who provides food for all.  Bread is bread, but its meaning depends on the eyes of the beholder.


Passover for Jews is a reminder of God’s promise to our ancestors to redeem us from slavery and bring us to Sinai to receive His Torah,and settle us peacefully in the land of our ancestors, and in the future to bring redemption ot the world.  Christians view Easter, commemorating Jesus’s triumph over death, his atonement for the sins of humankind, as he embodies the paschal lamb, that was the central symbol of Passover, but now totally reinterpreted. Both traditions stress our yearning for future redemption and our hope that we might create a better world for all.  May that day soon arrive.



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